The ironically named ‘Piece of Cake Trail Marathon’ which proved to be anything but…
Located in the spectacular Carding Mill Valley in the Shropshire Hills, this is another one of Denzil’s ‘How Hard Can It Be Events’ which have now become a firm favourite of mine in the calendar. With options to run either a half-marathon or marathon distance, I’d registered for the latter; a two lap, technical trail run with it’s fair share of climbing. At just shy of 4,800ft of elevation gain, it’s a tough old route but with breathtaking views across the Shropshire Hills and the Long Mynd, it certainly rewards those that take on the challenge.
I couldn’t have gone into this event any less prepared.
I’d spent the last 5 weeks on the injury bench with ‘runners knee’ – bought on from my on-going Achilles issues. In a nutshell, I’d spent 18 months managing (ignoring) issues in my Achilles which had caused a muscle imbalance due to overcompensating – which in-turn had led to knee pain. I’d been in regular contact with the physio and the diagnosis and recovery plan was clear – repair the Achilles which in turn would sort out the muscle imbalance which would fix the knee.
Twice daily sets of calf raises, heal drops, single-leg bridges and deep tissue massage – which I’d been doing religiously for 5 weeks – and no running for a minimum of 4-6 weeks.
I’d considered a DNS. I’d DNS’d at the Bumble Bimble – a local 10 mile trail run two weeks prior and the thought had crossed my mind again. It was the sensible option – but – physio had been working – and the pull of the trails was strong. After four weeks of intensive stretching and daily exercises, I no longer had knee pain and the Achilles, although not completely pain free was recovering well. I’d discussed my intentions to run with the physio – and whilst she never directly encouraged it, she certainly didn’t discourage it – which I took as a green light.
I was in.
All I needed now was to find some fitness!
I had no race plan of sorts other than to enjoy the event and take it at a steady pace – walking sections if necessary. I’d managed to maintain some fitness, putting in the hours on my turbo trainer but I certainly wasn’t marathon ready – especially over this sort of terrain. But I’d give it a go – slow and steady wins the race and all that – and I was mentally prepared to DNF at the first sign of any knee or Achilles pain.
Registration was at Carding Mill Valley and I arrived just in time meet up with Maria and Darren who were also doing the marathon and Nicola, who was down to do the half. We collected our race numbers and gathered for the pre-race briefing. As is now the new norm, we were given wave times – 8.20am start time in my case – and the whole process felt incredibly safe and well organised.
The first few miles are pretty undulating as the single-file trail winds up through the valley. The views are spectacular and the terrain, although pretty technical, is mostly runnable. I was running with Maria and Darren at this point and we kept a steady pace – being mindful of my current fitness levels and on-going injury concerns.
It wasn’t long before we reached the first of the two key climbs. At 1,600ft its a fair old climb but nothing I’d normally worry about this early into a race. I was about half way up and I was starting to struggle physically. My heartrate was unusually high – around 170bps – and although the sun was behind broken clouds, the humidity levels were at 93% and I could feel myself overheating – despite taking plenty of fluids on board.
We pushed on until we reached the top of the first climb and the single-file trail was replaced by open grassland as the route continued to climb up towards the road. It was on this section that Darren pushed on ahead whilst Maria and I maintained a more sedate pace – mainly due to me taking regular walking breaks to settle the heart rate. By the time we reached the road, we’d settled into a nice comfortable rhythm and the running felt easier as the terrain flattened out.
The next few miles are predominantly hard packed trails and roads which are all runnable. We managed to maintain a steady pace and the conversation was flowing as we were taking in the surroundings whilst being thankful that we were out on the trails – after 5 weeks off, I’d certainly missed it!
By mile 6 we reached the farm which indicates the start of the next main climb. I was feeling ok at this point – running the last couple of ‘easy’ miles had slowed the heartrate and I felt like I’d finally settled into the run – whilst maintaining a more realistic heartrate for the level of exertion I was putting in.
Once we’d navigated the farm, the route takes you back over the Long Mynd as you make your way over the rolling countryside – climbing to some false summits before the terrain levels out only for you to continue the climb. At just shy of 1,700ft of climb, it’s a challenging yet beautiful part of the course and with the realisation that once you’ve reached the main summit, the remaining 4 miles are predominantly downhill back to registration and the end of lap 1.
Summit reached, we took a breather before settling back into a comfortable pace as the course zigzagged its way back to Carding Mill Valley, via hardpacked trails and road. The final mile being a truly spectacularly, rocky, technical descent down through the valley which on tired legs, takes some concentration and care to navigate but feels like the perfect ending to the route…or at least the perfect ending to lap 1.
Lap 1 complete in 2:47 – some 30 minutes off my 2019 time but given the circumstances, I was more than happy to complete the first lap and remain injury free.
Lap 2 didn’t quite go as well.
We maintained a steady pace for the first couple of miles, albeit we’d slowed slightly and were now hiking any hint of elevation. Maria then received a text message from Darren to say that he’d stopped at the end of lap 1 due to on-going injury niggles so would wait for her at the finish line. I’ve no doubt it was the correct decision for him and something inside me was wishing I’d made the same decision rather than carrying on for the second lap.
By mile 15 we reached the first main climb again and that’s when I felt the wheels fall off.
I had no energy and felt physically drained.
I’ve done this race – and the winter version – Icing on the Cake (same route) – numerous times before and although the hills are challenging, they’ve never stopped me in my tracks. Maria was powering on ahead whilst I was taking one step at a time, struggling to control my heart rate and stopping to catch my breath every 5 metres or so. It was tough. Eventually, I reached the top and the ground levelled out as the single-file track is replaced by open grasslands. I took some fuel on board – Tailwind and a Boost) and walked the next mile or so, intermittent with a little jog every now and again. I encouraged Maria to go on ahead (I knew at this stage that the remaining 10 miles were going to be a struggle) but to her credit she said we’d started together so we’d finish together – I couldn’t ask for a more supportive running partner to be honest.
Reaching the road again, the route levels out and the terrain encourages you to start running. I still felt exhausted but managed to run – albeit at a conservative pace – for the next couple of miles.
At mile 18 we stopped at the aid station to replenish our fluids and catch our breath. We knew that there were a few club runners on the course and with different start wave times and the nature of the route, there would be a chance that we’d see them mid run. We’d spoken about how lovely it would be to bump into some of them earlier on in the morning. Whilst Maria was replenishing her water bladder, Kevin and Gill came running into the aid station and it gave me us a massive lift. They were down for the half marathon and had 4 miles left. After a quick catch-up and photo, we wished each other well and left the aid station in separate directions but it felt great to have seen them.
Approaching the farm for the second time, I’d started to feel a little better. We’d managed to run the last couple of miles – which were predominantly downhill and on roads – and although the legs were still heavy, I knew that once we’d successfully negotiated the next 3 miles of climbing, it was downhill to the finish.
The climb up through the farm was tough but manageable and it wasn’t long before we reached the gate to the Long Mynd – and the start of the main climb. Maria was pushing on ahead whilst I was slowly working my way up the hill behind her. Every step becoming more of a challenge and although Maria was offering words of encouragement, I could feel every ounce of energy draining out of me. About 3/4 of the way up, I started feeling nauseous and dehydrated – and the sweetness and warmth of my Tailwind in my soft flasks wasn’t helping. I found myself stopping every minute or so to catch my breath, supported by the bard-wired fence in fear of passing out. I’ve never felt so rough on a run before – even on longer, more challenging routes. Maria was encouraging me to sit down and rest for a few minutes but I just wanted to get to the top of the climb before I could relax – so I slowly plodded on – one step in front of the other. It wasn’t pretty but after what seemed like an eternity we reached the summit – and the sanctuary of the road.
I was physically exhausted and had no energy in reserve.
I lay down for a couple of minutes but it felt like every muscle group in my body was cramping up and I felt nauseous. I didn’t want to move. Maria was as supportive as ever (secretly taking photo’s to hold against me forever may I add) but I felt like an unfit, 42 year old bloke taking on too big a challenge after zero training – which is exactly what it was. Any dignity I had I left on that grass verge.
I think I’d still be there now if it wasn’t for another runner, who after summiting, lay down on the verge next to us in a similar state of exhaustion. After a few supportive words, she politely turned her back towards us and announced she was going to be sick – prompting us to move on to give her some privacy.
We walked for the next half mile or so, constantly checking behind us on the runner who had now gotten to her feet and was making her way slowly down the road behind us. Maria encouraged us to a slow jog and although exhausted, we managed to maintain a steady pace knowing that the finish line was in sight.
The remaining 4 miles were probably some of the hardest run/walk miles I’ve ever done. The final descent, although spectacularly beautiful, was a slow plod, concentrating to ensure that I navigated the rocks and boulders to avoid a nasty fall. Again, it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty but before long we made our way down the valley in sight of the finish line.
Greeted by Denzil and Darren as we crossed the finish line, we were awarded our medal – finishing with an official time of 6:10 – almost an hour slower than my previous attempts but delighted to have just got it done. Thanks again to Maria for all her support and encouragement, it’s great to share these adventures with someone who enjoys the trails as much as I do.
In reflection, it was one of my toughest days out on the trail. Given my recent injury issues, I was delighted to finish the race with no discomfort in either my knee or my Achilles – with the latter feeling ok the following day after a good stretch and foam roll. My biggest issue was my fitness levels. I’ve done a 3 week taper beforehand and then ran some relatively long distance but 5 weeks off with no running was too much and it caught me out after 15 miles – especially over that kind of terrain. It’s scary how you lose race fitness so quickly.
So what’s next? I have Thunder Run (Solo) in a couple of weeks – to run as many 10k laps as you can muster in a 24hrs – although my expectations have now reduced drastically based on my current fitness levels so I’m not putting too much pressure on myself in terms of distance. I’ve deferred RH100 until next year so the plan now is to concentrate on physio/rehab and sort the knee and Achilles issues out once and for all – and hopefully hit 2022 fully fit.